Friday, 9 September 2016


CrossCode is a game that I've been keeping an eye on for a while now. Just from looking at it, the game oozed retro charm with its very 16-bit aesthetic and overhead Zelda-inspired perspective. Actually sitting down and spending some time with CrossCode reveals that there's a lot more to it. The game isn't simply a retro throwback meant to tug at our heartstrings through the powers of nostalgia. There are a number of modern day conveniences and design philosophies at work that a lot more depth to the experience.

The basic premise of CrossCode is that players take on the role of a girl named Lea who is trapped in a virtual world that is part of a popular MMORPG. It's all rather reminiscent of anime series such as .Hack and Log Horizon. Complicating things is that Lea has lost her memory, so she doesn't really understand much about the world that she's in. Luckily, she has the help of Sergei Asimov, a human in the real world who is communicating with Lea, trying to help her with her memory. From what I've played so far, he hasn't helped a huge amount and has been mostly helping Lea regain her ability to speak, as she's been affected by a glitch in the game whereby she can't talk. She may not be a brilliant conversationalist but it's a convenient way of pushing forward the silent protagonist.

As one progresses, they experience more of the world and Lea meets other players in the MMO. She has to keep her background a secret, though, as they think she's a normal player just like them, not a person trapped in the game. As she meets all of these people and they get to chatting, we see various nods to the MMO genre. What's nice about this is that dialog doesn't linger on jargon that is commonly associated with the genre. Instead, it's more about player attitudes and behaviors. It's a nice change of pace, as it seems like various shows or games that make reference to MMOs get hung up on language and spend little to no time looking at what makes the genre special in the first place: all of the different people who play the games.

In terms of actually going around and doing stuff, on a base level, CrossCode has a lot in common with classic Zelda games when the series was all about the overhead perspective. This can be seen through the various zones connected together that are teeming with monsters, often with treasure chests in hard to reach places, enticing players to figure out how to get to them.

Getting to said treasure chests, not to mention doors / passages to other zones is where we see the game come into its own, as platform puzzles play a big role in players getting around. There isn't any actual jump button when Lea explores an area, but when she comes to a ledge or a bit of ground that isn't much higher than where she is, Lea will jump automatically. With that, players can explore a given zone and try to figure out which ledges are of the appropriate heights and distances from one another to traverse to hidden or generally hard to reach areas.

Things become even more complicated in dungeons where the platforming becomes even more difficult and the puzzles more complex, incorporating moving pillars, and switches that have to be activated in very specific ways. It's also worth noting that dungeons are extremely large and can take over an hour to get through, usually with a very tough boss at the end.

There's also a fairly decent amount of character customization in CrossCode thanks to the game's talent tree. Branching into four directions, each specializing in different aspects (melee attacks, ranged attacks, health, and defense), the branches give players the option to enhance various base stats as well as unlocking new abilities. On top of this, players slowly learn different elemental abilities which can be treated as stances that Lea can switch between, each of which have corresponding branches on the talent tree that become available when she learns these stances. As such, even more customization is unlocked.

As mentioned earlier, the game's visuals are quite reminiscent of what one would expect to find during the 16-bit era, especially games that were showing up on the SNES at the time. Character and enemy designs are of the cutesy variety, while zones are fairly different from one another ranging from lush forests to snow-swept mountains to high tech facilities. One thing that really stood out while wandering CrossCode's world was how vibrant and colorful the aesthetic is, The colors really do pop off the screen.

Meanwhile, the music has quite a bit of synthy melodies going on that reminded me of Phantasy Star quite a bit. Being a huge fan of the music in that series, this suits me just fine.

At this point, CrossCode has been available on Steam's Early Access for a fair bit of time. There's already a lot to do in the game, so I'm getting the impression that it will be quite long when it's finally completed. As of now, the game is only slated for the PC and Wii U, but who knows, maybe it'll get brought over to other platforms in the future. It's certainly looking promising and will likely gobble up quite a bit of time for people who like Zelda-inspired action RPGs.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Castle in the Darkness

This whole neo retro thing that has been emerging from indie games has been pretty great, I think. Being someone who grew up playing stuff like the NES, Genesis, and SNES, seeing new releases that are very obvious nods to the games of that era is most welcome. We even get the benefit of tighter controls, faster gameplay, and the implementation of various newer game design ethos that have come along recent years. So, we wind up with a game that is both nostalgic and fresh at the same time.

Lately, I've been fiddling around with one such game called Castle in the Darkness (henceforth referred to as CitD). It's been out for a few years and has a light metroidvania feel to it. Players are pitted as the last surviving knight in their castle after it was attacked, and who must now fight through legions of enemies in said castle to save the kingdom.

Visually, the game looks like something that could just as well have appeared on the NES. The sprite work is very well done and true to the period all while eliminating the flicker and other graphical shortcomings that Nintendo's old console was known for. Character and enemy design goes for a cutesy approach with players controlling their adorable little knight and proceeding to fight cute little enemies, all while helping cute little townsfolk. The bosses aren't so little, but still reasonably cute in their design, with some being impressively large, taking up a fair bit of real estate on the screen.

From the aural side of things, CitD covers the bases in therms of sound effects and music. From what I've played thus far, there haven't been any particular standout tracks. The tunes just do what they need to, harking back to the 80s with catchy, bouncy bleeps and bloops. It certainly fills the nostalgia quotient, but doesn't go above and beyond that.

As I mentioned earlier, the game has a light metroidvania feel to it. There are branching paths, items to find, and obstructions that can't be passed without finding these items. This results in a degree of exploration and backtracking just like in the days of Metroid and Castlevania, or at least installments in those series that involved exploration and / or backtracking.

With that there is plenty of marching through varied albeit castle-y environments as players stab their way through hordes of undead in search of doodads and bosses. Areas I've come across thus far have some pretty noticeable nods to Castlevania, particularly one zone with bits of clockwork gears twirling around which instantly made me think of the clock tower in Castlevania III.

CitD is pretty challenging too, with the game happily keeping count of how many times players die. After dying 50 times, an easy mode is unlocked for those who want to tone things down a bit, and even then the game poo-poos people for opting to take the easier route, implying that only wimps that don't play a lot of games would want to use it.

Personally, I don't find it too terrible, but then again I'm an old geezer who cut his teeth on games of this ilk. All it really takes is learning enemies' attack patterns, figuring out platform timing, and getting a handle on controlling your character. The last part actually takes a wee bit of practice, as your little on-screen knight has some momentum behind him when he moves. This results in him moving forward a tad after running, and a bit more after a running jump, so players need to be aware of this and learn to compensate for it while platforming.

As you've probably surmised, I've not yet finished the game, but it has been tugging on just the right nostalgic heartstrings thus far, so I've been inclined to yak about it a bit. Folks that like these indie games that hark back to times of yore may want to consider tracking it down. If anything, wait until a Steam sale. The game is already cheap and when those sales happen it can go for under a buck, so you don't have much to lose.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Look Back at Parasite Eve

WARNING: This article contains story spoilers.

Parasite Eve was one of the many games Squaresoft released in the wake of Final Fantasy VII’s runaway success. It was a time when the studio began to take a lot more chances, experimenting with new ideas, and branching out into a number of new series.

What made this game special were a number of factors. For one, it took place in a contemporary setting. There were no dragons or spaceships here. Instead players were tossed into New York City on Christmas Eve 1997. It’s very rare for an RPG to take place in the present when there are so many possibilities at one’s disposal in futuristic or fantasy settings. However, to ensure that the game didn’t drift toward the mundane day to day of modern life, Parasite Eve was also a survival horror game rife with gory monsters and special abilities.

According to an interview with Tetsuya Nomura in Dorimaga about a decade ago, one of the early ideas that Hironobu Sakaguchi had planned for Final Fantasy VII was for it to be a detective story taking place in New York, starring a character dubbed Hot Blooded Detective Joe. Of course, that never happened, but with that in mind it’s easy for one to see some superficial parallels between this idea and Parasite Eve.

Final Fantasy VII had Midgard, a huge, bustling megalopolis, not all that dissimilar to New York. Moreover, similarities can be drawn between some of the two games’ main characters, in this case Cloud and Barrett versus Aya and Daniel. It’s not much, but certainly suggests that Parasite Eve was Sakaguchi’s chance to really sit down and make his detective story.

The game branded itself as a “Cinematic RPG” and right from the start it’s easy to see why. This was a time when consoles were finally becoming powerful enough to try and present games in a fashion similar to film. For better or worse, the age of sprite-based graphics shackled to either overhead or side view camera angles were coming to an end. Games were diving headlong into the age of polygons and GC cutscenes.

The likes of Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Legacy of Kain, and a slew of other titles were quickly changing how people looked at games, as the medium shed its 16-bit cutesy veneer for grittier fare chalk full of carefully thought out cinematics and dialog. Parasite Eve was one such game to be at the forefront of all this.

Something that really helped Squaresoft accomplish this was that they worked closely with a number of people in Hollywood. If one looks at the credits, they’ll discover a number of Western names. The game was a joint effort between Square’s Japanese studios and American filmmakers, many of whom would go on to do special effects and CG for various films of the 90s and 2000s. Also of note is how much of a team effort design was on the game. It’s not uncommon for games to be a joint effort between Japanese and Western developers, but up until this point, such projects tended to have a clear delineation of duties with the Japanese studio heading up design while their Western counterpart focused on production. A prime example of this would be the arrangement that Nintendo and Argonaut had when making Star Fox. In the case of Parasite Eve, there was much more overlap in who did what. This greatly helped to ensure that New York was represented far more authentically than how large American cities tended to be portrayed in Japanese games.

Loosely based on a book of the same name, Parasite Eve takes place several years after the events of the novel. The story centers around 25 year old NYPD detective, Aya Brea, with the premise being that throughout history mitochondria, basically the energy generating organelle in most living creatures cells, are actually sentient, and trying to rise up and become the dominant lifeform on Earth. It’s more than a little far fetched, and requires one to exercise a certain suspension of disbelief, being a reflection of film and television at the time becoming heavily reliant on pseudo science and techno babble to explain unusual story premises.

As one can probably surmise, it’s up to Aya to stop this. What quickly becomes evident while doing all of this is just how much Parasite Eve emulates a typical 90s cop drama. In this day and age, we see a lot more discussion about how story can be implemented in a videogame in such a manner that feels more at home in the medium, rather than having a clear divide between game and exposition.

During the late 90s, this conversation wasn’t really happening in any big way. As mentioned earlier, this was the early days of when games could explore storytelling in a much more in-depth manner. So, what we had more often than not were games that drew heavily upon filmmaking methods in order to push narrative. Parasite Eve is an excellent example of this, thanks in no small part to the sheer of people with experience working on movies being involved.

We see this most clearly in the members of NYPD Precinct 17 as the player gets to know them better. First, there’s Daniel, Aya’s partner, who is recently divorced and trying to find a way to balancing his time as a cop and being a father to his son, Ben. Next, there’s Wayne, who helps with weapon maintenance in the basement. He’s a bit of a gun nut, and the game doesn’t shy away from letting the player know. However, he’s offset by Torres, who is in charge of distributing firearms to officers. While Wayne is extremely enthusiastic about guns, Torres refuses to use them since his daughter died in an accident while playing with one.

So, as one can see, it’s pretty standard subject matter that often gets explored in television programs of this sort. The question, though, is whether this is actual, heartfelt social commentary, or is it deserving of a more cynical eye, as backstories added in a paint by numbers fashion, since they’re such frequently visited tropes in police dramas. There’s no real way to know. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to be overly hard on Parasite Eve for having them. Social commentary was still in its infancy in games during this time, so the mere fact the ideas of gun control or work / life balance were being hinted at were most welcome, and an important step in games trying to veer away from being so heavily focused on saving princesses and the like.

From there the game steadily marches forward as Aya chases after Eve, coaxed by her nemesis to join her rather than resist. Players are introduced to another character along the way, Kunihiko Maeda, a sharp if somewhat awkward Japanese scientist with a thorough knowledge of the Eve mitochondria and how it wants to take over the world. He’s largely here as a means of making sense of the main crux of Parasite Eve’s plot, although Maeda does this in typical 90s sci-fi horror movie style, bombarding the viewer with arcane jargon that doesn’t make a lot of sense. He’s also a useful mechanism in tying together the events of the novel with the game, as he explains much of what happened in the book and how Aya and her family are connected to it.

Despite the fact Aya is a female lead, something fairly rare in games even today, the Parasite Eve doesn't really play it up. She comes off as a serious police officer, focused on sorting out the whole Eve conundrum, but the game doesn't really go beyond that. At most, we see glimpses into her past that explain her whole connection to the events of the game as well as what her dead sister has to do with it. Other than that, it's all business. Granted, some of the advertisement and art to come out with the game sexes up Aya quite a bit, but in-game she's just a cop out to stop rampaging mitochondria. The main character could have been named Alan Brea and it wouldn't have made a difference.

Oddly, despite some effort being put into fleshing out many of Aya’s colleagues, the game’s villains feel one dimensional by comparison. Dr. Klamp is portrayed as little more than an obnoxious, driven scientist that is there to explain how Eve came to be and tie her more closely to Aya. Then Eve herself comes off as simply being bent of world domination while sporting a superiority complex. There just isn’t much too them other than the understanding that they’re both evil and will need to be dealt with at some point.

Whether it was dealing with mitochondria bent on ruling the Earth, or touching on the backgrounds of Daniel and the gang, one could see a strong focus on pacing for much of the game. Parasite Eve doesn’t waste any time dropping Aya into the thick of things. There’s no slow ramp up, hinting at what’s to come. Right from the first scene, Aya is at the opera on Christmas Eve when suddenly Eve, a woman who has been taken over by mitochondria and the game’s main antagonist, uses her powers to cause most of the audience to simultaneously burst into flames.

All the way through the narrative, this swift pacing is easy to see. If anything, it comes as a stark contrast to a lot of other RPGs to come out at this time. Often times, with developers attempting to create more cinematic experiences in their games, many titles wound up being inundated with melodrama. What could have been said in a couple of minutes and been much more powerful got drawn out into much more meandering cutscenes.

By comparison, Parasite Eve cut a lot of this out. Exposition was quick and to the point. The main plot said what it had to say in a quick, concise manner and we got glimpses into many of the characters’ lives without the game waxing on ad nauseum about them. There was a less is more attitude behind the storytelling here.

That being said, the pacing really took a hit towards the end of the game. As it stands, Parasite Eve isn’t very long. For most people, a playthrough on normal mode will only take about 10-12 hours. That is extremely short for an RPG, especially one of Parasite Eve’s caliber. At this point, people were used to games in the genre clocking in at 25 hours or so, with the latest generation of JRPGs flirting with 50+ hour titles.

It feels as though the game’s designers realized that Parasite Eve was going to be quite short and started to pad the game toward the end. By the time one gets to the sewers beneath Chinatown, they start to encounter much larger maps and a big uptick in the number of enemy encounters. This is exacerbated even further at the museum, which is easily the biggest level of the game and teeming with monsters.

The whole thing feels like Squaresoft suddenly noticed that the game wouldn’t even crack 10 hours with the way things were going, so just tossed in a bunch more content at the end to make it feel at least a little bit larger. It makes one wonder if it would have been better to include the Chrysler Building as optional content in the normal mode of the game, rather than gating it behind Game+ mode as a means of providing additional content instead. At least then, it could have helped to avoid this noticeable shift in pacing while still providing the player with additional, albeit optional, content. Granted, the building would have to be seriously retooled in this context, but it could have been a better option for padding content in the long run.

Not only was pacing extremely noticeable in the game, but tone was as well. Given that Parasite Eve is very much a survival horror title, this is to be expected. Unlike other games in the genre, this one doesn’t go for any sort of jump scares. Instead, it sets a creepy, unsettling atmosphere and maintains it throughout the game.

Most of the environments are dark with much of PE taking place at night. Even daytime scenes aren’t all that well lit under the dreary overcast skies of New York in December. All the while, the music slowly flows from the speakers. What’s particularly nice about the score is that it avoids the temptation to default to a typical ambient soundtrack to create a mood, instead having much more pronounced melodies and instrumentation while at the same time complimenting what Aya was dealing with at any given time.

The strongest projection of horror in Parasite Eve came from the use of gore and biological monstrosities. There’s one scene in particular where Eve attacks a group of concert goers in Central Park by making their bio matter melt and coalesce in one massive, shapeshifting blob of an entity. For the time, this game’s CG scenes were very impressive, and this really drove home the gore elements. This was by no means the only time we saw stuff like this either, as on more than one occasion players witnessed various animals mutate before their eyes, skin tearing open, appendages thrusting out, blood, gore, and teeth everywhere. These scenes were often reminiscent of horror classic The Thing with the grotesque monsters it had lumbering about.

Helping add to the tone of the game is how alone Aya feels and how limited her resources are. There is no party system here. Players aren’t controlling a group with, for example, Aya, Daniel, and Maeda in it. It’s just Aya all by herself with no back up. She’s the only person immune to the abilities of these rogue mitochondria, so everyone else has to wait outside while she deals with them.

Because of this, there’s a greater sense of tension. If Aya goes down, that’s it. There won’t be anyone who can resuscitate her. It’s straight back to the title screen to load a save file. So, not only are players in situations where they may be fighting a particularly nasty, scary looking monster, they also have to worry about learning it’s attack patterns on the fly and making sure to not screw up.

Also, Aya can’t carry very many items on her. Her inventory does expand over time but the challenge comes in the fact that outside of ammunition, items don’t stack. Each medicine, each gun, each body armor, each key, and so forth take up their own slot. As a result, it doesn’t take very long before she can’t carry any more, leaving players to make tough decisions. There could be some very difficult enemies in the next room, causing one to agonize over whether to get rid of a Medicine 3 for a new tool or weapon upgrade. Thankfully, it is possible to swap an item from one’s inventory, taking whatever goodie a lock box might have, then coming back for it later, but there’s always that underlying threat of danger that the player has to contend with often making these decisions tough, and once more thing amplifying the pressure.

One nice touch that the game does in maintaining the mood is how battles begin. In a lot of JRPGs, when a battle ensued there would be pronounced transition to a different screen, usually something like a flash with a loud noise, perhaps with the image twirling in a circle, before fading to one’s party facing off against a horde of monsters.

In Parasite Eve, when combat starts it’s much more subtle. The screen simply blurs around the edge a bit accompanied by the sound of a heartbeat. From there, enemies spawn and battle begins. It’s interesting, as the fight will take place right where Aya is in a given level. There’s no formal shift to a battle screen. As a result, it keeps players in the moment thanks to the environment remaining the same and a minimum of fanfare preceding combat. A traditional transition to battle would be far too jarring, yanking the player out of the experience whereas this gently nudges them into battle in a way that doesn’t break immersion.

While we’re on the subject of combat, it’s interesting how real-time and turn-based elements are combined in the game. There’s an active time bar that slowly fills, dictating when Aya can take an action. However, while waiting for this, players don’t simply twiddle their thumbs politely waiting their turn, as they can move Aya around the field during this time, avoiding attacks by enemies.

It’s very basic as one just has to run out of the way from projectile weapons and try to coax out melee attacks before dodging them, but it adds an entirely new layer to combat that we weren’t really seeing in RPGs. Most games in the genre much more strictly adhered to traditional turn-based or active time systems, so what Parasite Eve was doing came as a breath of fresh air.

Given the claustrophobic hallways and somewhat slow manner in which Aya ran, the battles could be pretty tense. It almost felt like when having a bad dream where monsters are chasing after a person, but they can’t seem to escape fast enough with everything happening in slow motion. As such, even this helped to add a certain degree of tension to the game.

Revisiting the game today, it’s easy to see that much of its visual style is quite dated, but for its time Parasite Eve’s graphics were top notch. What may look like extremely simple cutscenes now were cutting edge for their time, not just in terms of fidelity but also with regards to cinematography. Playing the game, it quickly becomes apparent that careful thought went into camera placement. Shots like when Aya and Daniel are driving to a new location and some of the angles used when Eve is talking to Aya are prime examples of this. It’s easy to see people with actual filmmaking experience were involved with making the game, which was nice given that this was an age where fighting the camera was the norm in many titles.

It also helped that PE used pre-rendered backgrounds with polygonal characters placed on top. This was a very common practice at the time with titles like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII being other examples of prominent games to utilize this technique. Because of this, characters stand out quite noticeably from their environments. It’s one of the drawbacks of this method. Nonetheless, it does provide for very specific scenery. Every area that Aya visits feels like a painstakingly created set piece. If anything, levels feel vaguely reminiscent of what one may find in a point and click adventure where each scene has all sorts of little details within it, like the set of a movie.

Before closing, it’s also worth touching upon how much the game allowed players to customize their equipment. Through the use of tools or paying a visit to the weapons depot at the precinct, it was possible to combine weapons, carrying over stats and special abilities to a new gun. This could lead to all sorts of different combinations of firearms. As a result, it gave the player a lot of options for how they could deal with combat. Did they want a machine gun that could poison enemies? Maybe a shotgun with a slow effect? The sky was the limit. If they had enough inventory space, they could even carry around more than one modified gun, giving themselves the choice of switching loadouts when necessary.

All in all, Parasite Eve marks a time when Squaresoft really started to spread its wings. During the 8 and 16-bit era, the company spent a lot of time on a trio of franchises: Final Fantasy, SaGa, and Seikin Densetsu. There were a few one-offs like Live A Live, Treasure of the Rudras, and Chrono Trigger, but the company wasn’t really experimenting all that often.

After the success of Final Fantasy VII, the studio’s developers took this opportunity to try something different, and on the whole Parasite Eve was a very good attempt at this. It’s not often that a compelling RPG comes along that takes place in a contemporary setting. Moreover, it managed to marrying role-playing with survival horror quite well through careful control of tone and pacing. From its approach to storytelling to how it tried to tackle the RPG genre in a new way, Parasite Eve turned a lot of heads and was a fine example of  just what Squaresoft was capable of when they experimented and broke away from the Final Fantasy formula that they were known for.

It was a time when the company entered a golden age in JRPGs. While they still brought out new entries in their bread and butter series like Final Fantasy and Saga, we also saw such releases as Xenogears, Vagrant Story, Brave Fencer Musashi, and a host of others. It was a prolific time in Squaresoft’s history, and Parasite Eve was one of the standouts of this period.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Revisiting Star Wars Republic Commando

There haven’t been a huge number of first person shooters set in the Star Wars universe, but when they’ve come along, these games have turned more than a few heads. Republic Commando was one such game to do this thanks to its enjoyable, easy to use squad-based campaign. Leading a group of four clone soldiers on a trio of missions, players were often kept quite busy fending off hordes of droids, Trandoshans, and Geonosians as they did the Republic’s bidding, ultimately catapulting the game to becoming a favorite among Star Wars fans.

When it’s functioning as a full-on squad based FPS, the game is a joy to play as one fights the separatists, barks out orders, and does their bit for the Republic. However, any time that the player is removed from their squad, the game loses something. Thankfully, these moments are far and few between, but when they happen the change comes into sharp focus.

As the name of the game suggests, players take the role of a Republic commando as his team go on a variety of missions. They’re in a unit called Delta Squad, so these guys are elite soldiers, usually being the first sent into a hot spot to establish a foothold for the rest of the Republic’s forces, or being involved in some sort of smaller special forces type of operation. There isn’t much in the way of a story. The game takes place during the events of the prequel movies, so one can see the overlap with events from those. What it feels like more than anything else is an adventure that might as well be called, “A day in the life of Delta Squad”. Under different circumstances, something like this would feel sparse in narrative, but it works here. The squad has its orders and need only concern themselves with executing them. None of this is to say that the story is cold and by the book, however, as there is a lot of banter between everyone while undertaking missions. It adds a humanness to each character, preventing them from becoming cardboard cutouts, and showing that these guys have personalities of their own.

This strong focus on the mission also helps to make the level design in Republic Commando feel more appropriate in the greater context of what’s going on. By the time this game came along, the old ethos of creating sprawling labyrinths to be explored was well on its way out of favor, being replaced by far more linear levels that had players jumping from one scripted event to the next. Sometimes this stripped down approach was difficult to swallow with certain games’ stories not lending themselves well to this type of level design, but it worked here since it so well suited to the systematic nature of the insertion missions that Delta Squad focused on. Sure, there were corridors and passageways conveniently blocked off by debris, but special forces units aren’t about bumbling through a maze, hoping they miraculously stumble across their objectives. They go in with useful intel so that they can get the job done as quickly as possible, and hopefully without incident.

Working with the squad as they do this is where the game really shines. It’s very straightforward giving orders to its members, lovingly named 07, 40, and 62 by the Republic. On the first level while attacking Genosia, players are slowly introduced to the members and the basics of squad commands. Everyone has separate landing sites, so you start off on your own and the rest of the team slowly join as you progress through the level. All the while, one gradually gets more and more opportunities to plant demolition charges, splice computers, and setup sniping or grenadier positions.

After a short while, all of these commands go from being quaint to essential as the team’s weapons don’t exactly hit very hard if they’re relying on their rapid fire blasters. It’s very important to assess any situation, and get people sniping and / or tossing grenades, while possibly also pointing out priority targets if a particularly powerful foe attacks. These weapons hit a lot harder and end fights much quicker, preventing the squad from getting overwhelmed. It’s also far more enjoyable taking a lay of the land, spotting optimal spots to snipe from, and learning the most effective ways to deal with enemies. Unfortunately, sniping and grenadier spots are determined by the game itself, with them being made known when your reticule passes over one of them, meaning that players can’t position squad members however they please. It’s not so bad, though, as there are usually a decent number of places where they can set up shop.

Once the game gets going, it’s quite satisfying to bark out orders, clash with tons of droids, Trandoshans, and the like. Things can get hectic in a hurry too with a good dozen or so enemies running around, while some weapon platform unloading on the squad from a distance, and droid dispensers spitting out yet more combatants, all the while trying to provide cover for one of the commandos as they frantically splice into a computer. This is where Republic Command is at its best.

However, as I mentioned earlier, there are times when you aren’t with the squad and things are nowhere near as entertaining. Thankfully, these instances aren’t all that frequent, but when they happen it’s hard not to notice the drop in excitement. Early in the game, it’s all very forgivable as the first few areas are like mini tutorials introducing players its mechanics. Enemies die fast and you aren’t really expecting anything because, well, the game just started. Things take time to ramp up. The problem comes later in that Geonosian assault because things really do ramp up. Droids everywhere. Some rather large and scary. Everyone scrambling to rescue comrades, snipe bugs, and basically doing their best to survive.

Then the second mission starts on a Republic acclamator and the squad each infiltrate the ship from a different area, forcing the player to fly solo for a while. This is where it becomes easy to see just how important the squad mechanics are to enjoying the game, as things taper off considerably until you’re reunited with everyone else. The level of intensity takes a dive as the number of enemies thrown at the player is reduced, which makes sense given that it’s only you and contending with hordes of baddies would have been overwhelming. However, the way enemies attack just isn’t very interesting. It’s usually just small packs of Trandoshans that come running up and are fairly easy to dispatch, especially once you start utilizing the shotguns that they drop.

It’s not very difficult and it’s not much fun either. The only time things get tough is when the game goes for scripted events and just drops enemies on the player out of nowhere which you either react to or die, think “Well, I won’t do that next time…”, get past the obstacle and move on. Exacerbating the matter is that this drags on for too long. It’s a relief once you start finding your squad mates again and can get back to doing more interesting fights, especially by the end of the mission where things really start to pick up, which just shows the contrast all that much more between squad and solo play in the game. The acclamator just feels like a low point in Republic Commando.

That being said, a lot of people still hold the game in high regard. It’s not like you need to run solo very often anyway, and when it comes time to do the final mission on Kashyyyk you’re with your team the vast majority of the time except for a little bit toward the very end. Ultimately, the simple, easy to use squad tactics are very appealing, and nowhere near as in-depth as something like Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six. It gives players the simplest of tastes of running with a group and giving them orders so to complete a mission mixed into the Star Wars universe, and that is plenty good for most people.

There aren’t a huge number of Star Wars first person shooters but when they come along they tend to be well done and Republic Commando lives up to that expectation. It pushes all of the right buttons for fans of the franchise while providing a fun, basic squad-based approach to combat. Sure, going it alone is not quite as fun, but it’s something that can be overlooked for the most part.

One thing that is difficult to overlook, though, is the music for the end credits, which is generic butt rock for some reason. It makes no sense after all that Star Wars music in the game. Why is it there? Weird.

That aside, Republic Commando is one more title to slide into the “Good” shelf of licensed Star Wars games. Even now, several years after its release it’s well worth revisiting. If you’ve never played it before, May 4th is almost here, so maybe now’s the time to try it.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 1

Having been watching this game off and on since it was announced, I’ve been curious just how Hyper Light Drifter would finally turn out. It has some very eye catching visuals with very pretty pixel art that really helped the game to get its foot in the door, but it’s followed up with a Zelda-inspired experience filled with opportunities to explore and some reasonably challenging baddies to cross swords with.

There have been no lack of games to come along in recent years to go the pixelated route with obvious nods to games of the past. Some of these have been good, others not so much. HLD is definitely in the first camp. It’s visiting a lot of stuff we’ve seen before like the aforementioned Zelda series, but there’s just so much polish here. Combat is fluid and fast-paced, there’s a heavy emphasis on exploration and non-linearity, environments and characters hint at a massive backstory, and the aesthetic of the game is its own instead of just being another pixel art game that looks like something straight off the NES or SNES. This is the sort of game that serves as an excellent example of something that taps into retro games without feeling derivative; at the same time tapping into a lot of modern sensibilities.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 2
At its heart, the game has a lot in common with old classic Zelda titles with its overhead view, combat style, and so much exploration. In fact, combat feels smoother and faster than anything I’ve ever come across in a Zelda game. Given what HLD throws at players, though, it’s easy to see this being a necessity. It’s definitely a challenging game. That being said, I think most people’s opinion of this will hinge on how much they’ve played old 8 and 16-bit games of this ilk. If you have indeed played a number of those types of games, HLD will seem reasonably manageable, though still fairly challenging, but those who haven’t may run into difficulty.

Enemies all have patterns and tells to their attacks. One needs to simply pay attention for a moment and watch the baddies do their thing while making use of the dodge button so they don’t get hit. It doesn’t take long to figure out what types of attacks enemies do and what sort of animation they perform before unleashing it so that players have the good sense to get out of the way. It only gets really intense when a room locks the player in and a bunch of enemies spawn at once to swarm the hero. In this case, things do get dicey, requiring some fancy footwork to dodge everything enemies throw at the player. Even then, it’s not insurmountable. The game doesn’t just drop players into these situations. It eases them in. Players are slowly introduced to the different enemies, and only after making it a fair way into a given dungeon do they find themselves in such situations.

Bosses too are a matter of learning patterns. If anything, I found these guys easier than some of the swarming incidents. They have very discernible patterns that don’t take long to learn, and it’s simply a matter of execution after in order to take them down. Really, these were the most reminiscent element of 16-bit gaming in HLD for me.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 3
Your character also has a variety of unlockable abilities that can be purchased from trainers in the hub town of the game. While wandering around the countryside, players will gradually gather little yellow tokens and once they have enough they can be exchanged with the trainer for a new skill. These tokens are actually quite rare. They aren’t like coins that can be farmed to one’s heart’s content. They’re hidden in boxes and sometimes drop from enemies, but once they’ve been collected they never respawn. Also, once they’ve been spent there’s no turning back because the game automatically overwrites your last save after purchase, preventing save scumming whereby if players don’t like the ability they can just load up an old save and try something else. That just isn’t allowed here. As such, players need to think long and hard before buying a skill because once they have it that’s it, they’re stuck with it. If they want another they’ll have to head out into the wilderness and figure out where the rest of the hidden tokens are. So, in that regard there are some choices that have consequences in this game.

All the while, there’s quite a bit of exploration to be had. Players start in a hub town situated at the center of the world map with four exits: North, South, East, and West. From there it’s up to the individual to where they want to go. Generally each path leads to some sort of major temple where a boss is waiting to be defeated and some ancient device needs to be activated, but along the way there are no lack of detours to go on. There are a number of smaller power devices and keys that need to be found in order to get to a boss, so players need to wander around and find all of these as well, venturing down different paths. Some of these can be quite hard to find, and actually require you to run your character against the edges of an area. At some point, they may pop into a hidden passage tucked away behind a building or beneath a canopy of trees. They can be tough to see, but once found it’s quite satisfying, especially because they usually lead to useful goodies like more yellow tokens, health packs, or dungeon entrances.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 4
As one wanders this world, it’s hard not to wonder about its past. Just from looking at the surroundings, it’s obvious that players are in some sort of post apocalyptic setting. There are ruined buildings, old broken down robots, and dilapidated cannons everywhere, overgrown with foliage, being clear remnants of a fallen civilization. With all of this, though, we don’t get much explanation of how all this came to pass or why we’re doing what we’re doing in HLD. This is a very intentional approach, as the game has no dialogue in it. Any time the player talks with an NPC, they aren't greeted with a text bubble. Instead, a window opens with a series of still images depicting a short story. It’s enough to get the idea across but leaves a lot open to the imagination. While it does leave the player with some questions, at the same time it helps build a sense of wonder about HLD’s world as one tries to fill in the blanks on their own.

Also building this sense of wonder is the game’s aesthetic, as it has some of the nicest pixel art to come along in the last little while. HLD’s graphics very much have a personality of their own in terms of character and enemy designs, environments, and even the color scheme. As mentioned earlier, far too many pixel art games simply mimic things we’ve seen in 8 and 16-bit consoles, but this one does its own thing, allowing HLD to clearly stand out from other pixelated projects available.

The music also helps to enhance the experience. It has a very analogue synth feel to it reminiscent of Blade Runner. The game has the same composer as Fez, so it’s easy to see the similarities between the two. It works quite well here with the generally mellow, whirring minimalism of the synthesizers building the sense of wonder and loss permeating through HLD’s world.

Hyper Light Drifter Gameplay Screenshot 5

In the end, Hyper Light Drifter is a game people who like Zelda-esque action adventures should consider spending some time with. There have been plenty of other games to come along and provide similar experiences, but HLD is so much more polished while developing a personality of its own. The game is fairly challenging, but by no means impossible (if anything, I’d say that the Dark Souls series gives me more trouble than this did). With games like Dark Souls III, Quantum Break, and the HTC Vive coming out about now, there’s a chance HLD might fall between the cracks, but it’s a game that really deserves to be played. It just does so many things right, and looks great doing it.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Strange Product Tie-In Games

Finding new ways to get the word out about a product has always been something that marketers have toiled over. Whether it’s cleverly placing a can of pop in the background of a scene in a movie, flying blimps over stadiums, or wacky publicity stunts, increasing mindshare and getting people excited about their widgets has always been their thing. So, when video games came along, executives in board rooms the world over looked at the technology and thought to themselves, “Hey! The kids seem to like that stuff. How can we use that to our advantage?”

With that we’ve seen a steady stream of games come out over the last 30 years centered around this or that corporate mascot reminding us that their products exist and, just maybe, we should buy some. Obviously, a lot of these were pretty bad, but on the rare occasion one turned out to be somewhat entertaining. One thing is for sure, though, the majority of them raised eyebrows when they came along as people questioned who in their right mind would make a game based on that.

Today we’ll be taking a look at some of the stranger and more interesting product tie-in games to come along, the vast majority of which seem hell bent on reminding us that things like fast food exist. For the sake of brevity, we’ll be limiting this to console games and PC titles with proper releases. Browser and mobile games won’t be mentioned because we’d be here forever if we tried to wade through the legions dross to show up on those platforms.

Spot: The Video Game

In the late 80s and early 90s, 7Up actually had a mascot. The little red dot on the drink’s logo sprouted arms and legs, slapped on a pair of sunglasses, did cute things, and was suddenly a hit. The thing was plastered across billboards, in magazine ads, and getting into adventures in TV spots.

In time it made its way to video games. Most people are probably more familiar with the Genesis platformer Cool Spot (more on that in a bit), but the first appearance that the little guy was featured in was for 8-bit systems with Spot: The Video Game. It was basically reversi with the little Spot guy being moved around to choose where to play the next chip. The game could be played by up to four people with everyone passing the controller around when it was their turn.

It was a very simple game given the premise, and only took about six weeks to develop, eventually making its way to the NES, Amiga, Atari ST, Gameboy, and DOS.

Cool Spot

Here’s the Spot game that most people probably remember. It was a platformer, and a very good one at that. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when one considers that David Perry and Tommy Tallarico worked on it, two key members in the team that would go on to make the Earthworm Jim games.

It had solid controls, interesting level design, and looked amazing when it came out. As one would expect from the genre, players had Spot run and jump around levels, climbing to hard to reach areas, and shooting fizzy bubbles at enemies. In a lot of ways, it felt like a logical progression from the television commercials that aired at the time featuring the little guy.

Importantly, the game remembered to embrace the cutesy feeling that Spot gave off. He was pretty adorable in the ads, so people had a certain expectation he’d be the same in a game featuring him. This wasn’t really the case in the first game, but Cool Spot managed to pull this off much better with all of the little animation touches that the developers gave him.

Each level was a bit of a collect-a-thon as players had to explore them in search of cool points. Once they had enough, they’d be allowed to leave and progress to the next area. If someone wanted to put a little bit extra effort in, they could keep collecting these points and if they found enough, they would be able to go to a bonus stage.

In the end, this game gave people a bit of hope that video games based on products could actually be good. In hindsight, it’s easy to see things didn’t turn out quite so well, and Cool Spot is more of an anomaly. While it may have turned out to be one of the better platformers of the 16-bit era, other developers didn’t take the game’s example to heart unfortunately.

Spot Goes to Hollywood

A few years later, another Spot game came out. Once again, it went in a very different direction from the previous game. This go around, traditional platforming was eschewed in favor of a game with an isometric overhead view. It was still pretty much a platform game, but the change in perspective threw a lot of people off.

The basic premise was the same as Cool Spot with players hunting down cool points on each level. There weren’t as many to track down as the last game, but they were scattered all over the place, so could take a while to find.

Combat was where players tended to get frustrated while playing the game. Since it was an isometric view, aiming Spot’s projectile attacks could be difficult. This type of perspective can be quite finicky about this, and Spot Goes to Hollywood was a good example of it. Worse still, is that enemies tended to have quite a few hit points, resulting in them taking entirely too long to go down. The viewpoint also resulted in many a player watching Spot plummet to his death after miscalculating a jump while platforming.

The game eventually got ported to the PlayStation and Saturn when those systems came along, but in the end most people just scratched their heads trying to figure out why the developers opted to make the game isometric in the first place. Cool Spot was very good, and most people would have been just fine with more of the same, rather than this.

Spot: The Cool Adventure

While all of these home versions were coming along, 7-Up had their eye on the Gameboy as well. It was becoming popular, and what better way to encourage people to buy their drink while they’re out and about than to have a game based on it that they can take along with them.

This was actually the first platformer to feature Spot, having released a year prior to Cool Spot. It’s very straightforward in that regard and one has to wonder how much effort the game’s publisher really wanted to put into it.

This because the game is pretty much McDonaldLand (aka Mc Kids). The only difference is that the sprites were swapped out to reflect the fact is was a 7-Up based game rather than being a land of hamburgers.

Pepsi Invaders

In the early 80s, it seemed like just about anything would appear on the Atari 2600. In fact, just about anything did show up on that system, hence why the US video game industry eventually experienced a crash.

Helping to contribute to this was Pepsi Invaders, a game promoting Coca Cola. So bold was the company that not only did they place themselves as the hero in the game, but they put their arch rival in as the villain.

As the name suggests, it’s basically a Space Invaders clone, but instead of the usual ship fighting off swarms of evil aliens, players controlled the forces of Coca Cola as they shot down rows that read “PEPSI” with an alien at the end for level after level. While many point at ET as being the straw that broke the camel’s back when the crash came, Pepsi Invaders is a reminder that there were plenty of other terrible games that helped it along.

Pepsi Man

It would be over 15 years before we saw another Pepsi-based game, and, miraculously, it was actually not bad. Developed by KID, Pepsi Man came out for the PlayStation in 1999.

The game was a primitive endless runner where players controlled Pepsi Man as he ran down the street collecting Pepsi cans, dodging all manner of obstacles like trash, falling furniture, cacti, or whatever else seemed appropriate for a given level.

Looking back, most folks who remember the game think fondly of it for its silly, lighthearted style and simply being a product-based game that wasn’t completely terrible. Many have clamoured for a new game featuring the mascot, but given all of the legalese involved with such an endeavor it probably isn’t going to happen. One kind soul did make a mod for Metal Gear Rising that allows players to use Pepsi Man in it, though, which is nice.

Probably the biggest tragedy with the game is that it apparently didn’t sell well, which is a real shame.

Yo! Noid

Depending how old one is, and assuming they grew up in North America, some folks may remember when Dominos Pizza had an annoying red mascot called The Noid. People were reminded to avoid him because he’d steal our pizza. During the late 80s, good luck trying to turn on a TV and not see the thing cackling maniacally while making off with somebody’s pizza.

With him being everywhere, it was only a matter of time before he showed up in video games. Oddly enough, Yo! Noid isn’t the first game that he showed up in, but it’s probably the one most people are familiar with.

Developed by Capcom, the game was a reasonably decent platformer, and a major overhaul of Kamen no Ninja Hanamaru, which it was released as in Japan, with very different art, but identical gameplay. Nobody knew what the Noid was over there, so it made little sense to feature him in the game.

The game was by no means easy with a lot of quick deaths for the unprepared, and even the prepared. Really, folks got mad playing this game. If they didn’t already hate the Noid from all those commercials, surely this would push them over the edge.

Avoid the Noid

The first Noid game and was released on the Commadore 64 and for DOS in 1989 and it made a lot more sense than Yo! Noid did. Players took on the role of a pizza delivery boy who had to deliver pizzas, answer the phone, and basically do what the game told them to right on the box: Avoid the Noid.

It wasn’t a very long game, and was quite simple, but the spectacle of it all was a pretty over the top. Your character could dive out of the way of danger, and with good reason, seeing as there were rockets flying around trying to blow him up. The Noid traditionally took pizza theft quite seriously, and the developers made sure that this game reflected his zeal.

In the end, Avoid the Noid fell between the cracks as far as product-based games go, but it’s still worth remembering for being the first Noid game if nothing else.

Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool and Wild Wild Quest

Cheetos seem to be something a lot of people associate with those who play a lot of video games. I’ve never been one of them, because it just doesn’t make sense. Cheetos are one of the worst things to eat while playing video games because your fingers get all messy, and before long so does your controller. It’s disgusting and wrong. Who in their right mind does such a terrible thing? Usually people have that one friend who does that, but they quickly learn to never let them near their video games.

Nonetheless, we got two games featuring the things’ mascot during the 90s, Chester Cheetah, with Too Cool to Fool in 1992 and Wild Wild Quest in the following year. Both were extremely uninspired platformers that looked like a quick money grab by the developers to make something quick and easy.

Neither were worth wasting one’s time on and before long people knew to treat the games just like the people who ate the terrible product they were trying to promote and didn’t let them anywhere near their video games.

Kool Aid Man

A game featuring the Kool Aid Man sound like something that should work. Something aggressive with destructible environments. Just give us a game where we bust down walls and give kids sugary, vaguely fruit flavored drinks, and no sense of responsibility for such wanton destruction. It would perfectly encapsulate what Kool Aid is all about.

Unfortunately, the game came out in the early 80s for the Atari 2600 and a number of other systems during that time and technology just wasn’t ready for something like that yet. Players would have to settle for moving a juice jug around the screen and catching other jugs as they wastefully poured their libation to the evil Kool Aid Man god.

It was a very colorful game, though, so that was nice.

Global Gladiators

While McDonaldLand was alluded to earlier, the McDonald’s game that we really want to focus on today is Global Gladiators. This was a sneaky one because first and foremost the game was promoting environmentalism rather than fast food, which, of course, will set off all sorts of alarm bells for anyone who is remotely cynical at corporate attempts at altruism.

The game runs on the same engine as Cool Spot and Aladdin seeing as it was developed by David Perry and his team at Virgin Interactive. As such, it was actually pretty decent on the whole. Players controlled a couple of kids who were going around stopping all sorts of toxic shenanigans while taking orders from Ronald McDonald.

All the while, images of the McDonald’s logo were pasted across the screen, reminding folks that the company existed because non-stop TV commercials and locations just about everywhere apparently just weren’t enough to solidify the fast food chain’s place in the public’s mindshare.

Burger King Big Bumpin’ and Sneak King

Not to be outdone, Burger King also had a could of games come out in recent years. On the whole, these were a lot creepier than anything McDonald’s ever put out, but given how unsettling their mascot at the time was, someone dressed as a king with an over-sized head, this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

It all started innocently enough when Big Bumpin’ crept into the Xbox 360’s library. Players whizzed around bashing into one another in bumper cars. Sure, the king was their in all of his creepy glory, but the game was good clean fun, and refreshingly not crap, so not much to complain about there.

However, Sneak King was another beast altogether. Here players controlled the king as he snuck up on unsuspecting people to surprise them with a present: a hamburger. (Although given his attire, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking the present might be something pervy instead). It was like a high cholesterol Metal Gear Solid with tights. Folks enjoyed it, but at the same time it’s hard not to think the whole thing is a little unsettling.


Most people in the West likely have no idea what Yoshinoya is, although they apparently have a few locations in the US. It’s a chain of beef bowl fast food restaurants from Japan that are quite popular over there when someone wants to hop in for something to eat quick on the cheap.

In 2004, a game based on the chain was released for the PlayStation 2 in Japan. It was basically a restaurant manager where players oversaw a location, filling orders, serving customers, and generally making sure that everyone was happy. On the whole, the game was pretty decent as it was a reasonably well put together manager game at its core.

Unfortunately, it never left Japan, which is understandable given that it doesn’t have a huge presence outside of there. Nonetheless, it would have been nice to see it come West even if it got rebranded as something more recognizable for audiences there.

Darkened Skye

The Gamecube got a very sneaky product tie-in game about a decade ago. At first glance, Darkened Skye looks like a very straightforward action adventure game in a fantasy setting. There are monsters, forests, warriors, the usual stuff. However, upon closer inspection someone can see something is wrong. What could it be? Wait a second… Magic is powered by Skittles?

Yes, that’s right, Skittles. The little sugary fruit flavored candies that get stuck in one’s teeth and are the bane of fillings everywhere is an integral element of sorcery in the realm of Darkened Skye.

The game’s developer had made several games based on M&Ms which were largely forgettable being quickly cobbled together platformers and kart racing games. This one largely sticks out simply for being based on Skittles. People know what the things are. Some even like to eat them. It just seems so out of left field that of all the candies out there, this is what was selected for a game.